Rajesh Rao, Computing a Rosetta Stone for the Indus Script

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Wed Jul 13 17:16:03 UTC 2011

Dear George [Hart],

Just a quick follow-up on one interesting and critical issue you  
raise, re. rebuses:

> It also strikes me that if there were two people named "Hart,"  
> someone might put a pot over the heart to indicate that was the Hart  
> that was also a potter as opposed to the Hart that ran an inn.  This  
> would be a partially phonetic system.

Premodern peoples punned compulsively, as we know from many different  
types of sources globally. And visual puns of the sort you point to  
also show up in every known ancient civilization, both literate and  

But the use of visual-verbal puns (rebuses) certainly is not unique to  
what any specialist would view as a "script" in the technical sense of  
the term. Writing as understood by specialists in literate systems  
entails a lot more than just casual phoneticism.

The usual claim about the so-called Indus script (at least before we  
published our 2004 paper - claims now are far more modest) was that it  
was a "full script," implying that it was capable in principle of  
encoding any speech act.

That takes a lot more than the kind of casual phoneticism you point  
to, which is pervasive globally in emblematic, clan, and heraldic  
symbol systems (even in Mongolian horse branding systems).

In Western heraldic systems, for example, this kind of punning is  
known as "canting arms," which often included extraordinarily complex  
multi-symbol puns of the sort you refer to.

For many nice examples, see < http://www.heraldica.org/topics/canting.htm 
  > (see especially the section entitled "Complex Rebuses").

But use of rebuses aside, no one would sanely call systems of heraldic  
signs, which include a lot of casual phoneticism, "writing systems" or  
"scripts" as linguists typically use that term.

Can you write a book with heraldic signs? Or perform the ultimate test  
I'd contend of a "writing system" -- write a book about another book.  
Could you write a post using those signs about an ancient pseudo- 
script? :^)

Neither finding "nonrandom order" in symbols -- ALL symbol systems,  
linguistic and nonlinguistic, are nonrandom in order (try to come up  
with a counterexample!) -- nor casual phoneticism or punning or use of  
rebuses, is evidence of writing. Order is found in ALL symbol systems,  
not just literate one; and punning is common, in linguistic and non- 
literate systems both.

Did the Indus peoples in whatever languages (certainly multiple) that  
they spoke make puns? Certainly, if they were like all other ancient  
peoples we know (the way the brain is structured punning is in fact  

Did they have a writing system in the technical sense of that term?  
The evidence argues strongly against that -- starting above all with  
the embarrassing shortness of every one of the many thousands of Indus  
symbol strings that have come down to us, on over a dozen different  
kinds of materials.

One of the most interesting things about the Indus civilization, given  
its massive size, is precisely the fact that all indications point to  
its nonlinguistic status. This is far from unique in the premodern  
world -- many major urban civilizations in premodern Mesoamerica and  
South America also functioned without writing. And the same seems to  
have been true of the urban civilizations neighboring the Indus on the  
southeastern Iranian plains as well, and north as well.

But writing is a major enabling technology in civilization, and the  
apparent nonliterate status of the Indus goes a long way towards  
explaining a number of obvious differences between the urban remains  
associated with the Indus and those associated with their distant  
literate neighbors in the Ancient Middle East. Pace Possehl and  
others, major urban civilizations certainly do NOT require literacy.

Michael Witzel and I discussed some of problems the old script thesis  
introduced into studies of Indus civilization -- and some of the new  
approaches opened up in those studies by the non-script view -- in a  
paper presented at Harvard last October. Abstract here:


Unfortunately I'm under the gun and really can't take this any further  
at the moment. But I did find your comments about punning interesting.


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